Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stories Scientists Tell

A new study, published on-line this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that humans today are geared toward paying attention to other people and animals, much more so than inanimate objects. This despite the latter being the more likely source of modern hazards. In the study, groups of undergraduate students from the University of California-Santa Barbara, watched alternating pairs of flashing photographs of various outdoor scenes displayed on computer monitors. The first image of the pair showed one scene, while the second image showed the same scene with one change. The subjects indicated each time they detected a change between the scenes.
The images included animate objects (people and animals) and different types of inanimate objects, including plants, tools, vehicles, and buildings. Almost 9 out of every 10 test subjects correctly detected the changes involving people, or animals, compared to nearly two-thirds for inanimate objects. The time to recognize changes was also shorter, in general, for the animate objects.
The research team goes on to assert that this finding supports the idea that natural selection specialized the brains of earlier humans to monitor the visual details of other humans and animals, a feature which has been passed to us. That we possess this feature is attributed to natural selection inherently requiring long periods of time to taking a long time to create anything distinct. Of course, I would expect that if it were exactly the opposite, there would be a natural selection reason attributed to that, as well.
And then there's a chuckler from one team member that these results have implications for phobias and other behaviors that involve focus toward specific categories of objects over others:
People develop phobias for spiders and snakes and things that were ancestral threats. It's very infrequent to have somebody afraid of cars or electrical outlets. Those statistically pose much more of a threat to us than a tiger. That makes it an interesting test case as to why do tigers still capture attention.
Why tigers may capture more attention is interesting. That this gives insight to the development of phobias is nonsense. Yes, cars and outlets cause more incidents of harm to Americans (extrapolating beyond urban Americans is dubious given the make-up of the study group). Consider, however, that it is not unusual, in particular for those in an urban setting, to be exposed to dozens of nearly identical outlets and hundreds of similar cars on any given day. Compare that to how long it would take to come in contact with comparable numbers of spiders, snakes, or tigers. Also, consider that the images were of outdoor scenes, where people spend a minority of their time.
When they try to describe what it all means, the study team appears to be ignoring how the familiarity of objects and the topical constraints of the study could obviously play a role in the results. What we have from this study is an interesting bit of how human visual pattern recognition functions. Of course, that isn't very sexy, and may not rate a link picked up on the Yahoo! home page. It would also violate a development that has seemingly increased (at least in profile) since the whole intelligent design dust-up began a few years ago: Popular scientific news stories about human development must trumpet The Agenda.
"Seemingly" because the evidence for this "development" admittedly is anecdotal. But when you see stories of how drug companies may be influencing medical research, and the likes of George Soros are actively politicizing science (HHT: Powerline), it becomes reasonable to wonder... (Throwing the baby out with the bath water is now something to keep in check, as well.)
Regardless, what is pushed instead of an interesting tidbit is a speculative narrative tailored to be consistent with current evolutionary theory; a tale of hunter-gatherers creeping through the jungle and witless suburbanites oblivious to stalking SUVs . Alas, the neo-Darwinist context is king, and these scientists are its subjects.
[submitted by e-mail]

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